A new Australian television show, Struggle Street, has attracted much controversy and commentary. The three-part documentary was commissioned by the public broadcaster, SBS, and made by KEO films. The production company’s web site describes Struggle Street as an ‘observational documentary’ that will provide an ‘insight into the experience of those who’ve been dealt some of the worst conditions to start their lives’ and ‘provoke not just a change in public perception, but a debate about the direction of public policy as well’. The show is set in the western Sydney suburb of Mount Druitt and focuses on a number of working-class people experiencing poverty. Mount Druitt has a reputation of being ‘rough’ due to its concentration of public housing, and the western suburbs of Sydney have been marginalised due to their geographical distance from the metropolitan centre and their working-class demographic.
The controversy occurred after the broadcast of a promotional trailer. Some of the show’s participants contacted their local area mayor to complain about how they were depicted in the trailer. The mayor, Stephen Bali, attempted to put a stop to the show’s airing and staged a protest outside the headquarters of SBS. Bali described the show as ‘publically funded poverty porn’ and ‘rubbish’ television. To assist in making his point, a fleet of garbage trucks joined him outside the SBS offices. The mayor (who also had the support of Unions NSW) claimed that not only were the participants being portrayed in a negative way, but the show’s production team had engaged in unethical behaviour and he accused them of staging scenes and misrepresentation. While SBS did agree to pull the promo video on the request of participants, the network’s head of program content, Helen Kellie, defended the show, and it was broadcast as scheduled.
In part because of the protest, the show attracted much interest and debate. Multiple news items, reviews, and commentaries have been written on the show, and it is now one of SBS’s highest rating programs in recent years.
So is it ‘poverty porn’, as suggested by the mayor, or a serious observational documentary intended to create debate and effect change, as stated by the creators? And what happens when we view the show through a working-class lens?
I find the term ‘poverty porn’ problematic, in part because it diminishes the real experience of the participants. I prefer ‘middle-class voyeurism’, which describes both the production and the reception of the show. The show was created by the same company that produced the British series Skint, which also garnered criticism due to its portrayal of working-class poverty in the UK. It could be suggested that the middle-class producers of Struggle Street are exploiting their working-class subjects in order to advance their own careers. After all, the participants are not paid for their time, and the producers do not seem to be offering any long-term assistance to the neighbourhoods depicted. The show is most likely to be watched by middle-class viewers (who are the main demographic of public broadcasters), and most reviews and commentary appear to be written from middle-class perspectives. We see this when KEO’s director of programmes, David Galloway, compares the setting of Struggle Street to that of his previous production River Cottage Australia (which is a cooking show set in a ‘historic and picturesque village’). He describes the two shows as ‘heaven and hell’ and states that people ‘end up’ and are ‘lumped’ in Mount Druitt, making the area sound like a dumping ground for the poor.
The first episode of Struggle Street was very interesting. The participants reveal their struggles with unemployment, disability, homelessness, drug addiction, and lack of formal education. They are candid and generally unselfconscious. Their efforts to make do and try to provide for themselves and their families reveal the social and political reality of working-class life and poverty. They also demonstrate working-class resilience, resourcefulness, and the importance of community as they provide assistance to each other. The show includes working-class humour and philosophical discussions of daily life. As such, it provides important insight into the effects of poverty on working-class Australians. Rather than operating as voyeurism, Struggle Street has the potential to help viewers understand these effects. For those who have lived in poverty, the show validates their experiences and stories, even though some middle-class viewers may not recognize some of the nuances of that experience.
After the show aired, responses ranged from support for the aims of the show by those who believed it offered a glimpse into the lives of marginalised people, to concerns about its potentially exploitative element. The show was described as ‘brutal and raw’, ‘powerful and poignant’ and ‘required viewing’. It was also described as reinforcing stereotypes and being bad reality TV (rather than documentary) that contained a caricature of Mount Druitt that was unrepresentative of the area as a whole. Most positive reviews agreed that the narration was intrusive and judgmental and the soundtrack distracting and clichéd.
What I found most interesting is the almost complete absence of class from the discussions. Apart from one negative piece (written by an academic) that suggested that ‘class is a taboo topic’ (and also criticized the show for its ‘abjectifying images’ and ‘class racism’), no one mentioned the class system that creates poverty. Commentators used terms such as ‘disadvantage’, ‘dysfunction’, and ‘hardship’, and although some mentioned government policies that lead to cuts in local services, almost no one acknowledged structural class inequalities.
The discussion was even worse on Twitter. Some tweets reflected the reviews and commentary by journalists, but others mocked and attacked the participants of the show with classist and derogatory remarks. For example, one suggested that a person receiving government benefits should not be able to afford a mobile phone. Some Tweeters from western Sydney attempted to distance themselves from the participants, claiming that not all people from Mount Druitt were poor. This sentiment appeared in some of the published commentary as well. Some community leaders were quoted as disappointed with the ‘hopeless’ tone of the show, which ‘undermines all the good work we do’ and reinforces stereotypes. This points to the politics of respectability, as working-class people who are in employment distance themselves from the unemployed and poor.
For all the controversy, there is a place for observational documentary that focuses on the lives of working-class people. Their stories need to be told on working-class terms, though that in itself can be hard to define. While some of those featured in Struggle Street initially complained about how they were represented on the show, two of the show’s main participants, Ashley and Peta Kennedy have stated they are pleased with how the show highlighted their struggle.
In an ideal world, perhaps, poor and working-class people would produce their own documentaries, but poor and working-class people rarely have the resources to do that. Instead, they must collaborate with middle-class filmmakers, and that means there is always the potential for exploitation and sensationalism of working-class experiences for the sake of entertainment. The participants of Struggle Street deserve to have their stories told, and if they are unhappy with their portrayal they should have the right to make these concerns heard. The key, and the challenge, is ensuring that working-class people have control of their stories.